Pain behind the knee– popliteus muscle

I have a friend who’s currently dealing with “pain behind the knee”, and it reminded me of the time I had this problem high school. Our coach had us doing “plyometrics” stuff– jumping through ropes and over hurdles. I always had a tendency to “tweak” things when I did anything supplemental for my lower body– this is why even today, I’m very careful with anything I do outside of running. Nothing more frustrating than to randomly tweak something while NOT running! I believe the muscle I tweaked was the popliteus muscle– it’s a very small muscle behind the knee, and it’s very difficult to target for stretching/rehab…. but you certainly feel it if it’s tweaked and then trying to push off while running!

I went for 2 months with this frustrating pain, before I finally found a useful article on the internet– fortunately, this was when the internet was around (about early 2000). I’ve kept the article ever since because it helped me and was informative! Here’s the article:

Behind Problem Knees

“The most effective treatment to an injured popliteus is manually applied trigger point therapy and ultrasound. While many muscles respond well to self-applied rubbing or kneading, the popliteus muscle should be approached with care. It overlies the popliteal fossa which is loaded with sensitive blood vessels and nerves where damage via too much pressure is possible.

The popliteus muscle is slightly stretched when the hamstrings are stretched. To strengthen the muscle, sit on a high chair with your legs dangling off the ground. Using elastic tubing anchored at one end, wrap the other end around the inside of your foot and rotate your foot and lower leg inward. Use low resistance and high repetition, remembering that this is not a powerful muscle.

The part highlighted above is what I did to get over the problem. I basically sat on a table with my legs dangling, wrapped a theraband around my foot and tied it around my knee, and then I tried to move my foot in such a way until I felt like it was “stretching” the popliteus behind my knee– I definitely felt it in this muscle, so I knew it was tweaked! I did this exercise for 2 days…. and it was gone! It was the best feeling in the world to have easily fixed the problem.

I should add that this isn’t the sole cause of “pain behind the knee”. There could be any number of things wrong, whether with the hamstrings, calf, IT band, sciatic nerve, a cyst, or even structurally in the knee (~miniscus). It’s worth a shot though, trying the exercise above, meeting with a PT, or getting manual therapy.

If you ever experience this problem, or know someone else who does…. pass along this tip, and hopefully it helps others!

I appreciate donations for my free advice! I write with my heart and desire to help others. Your contribution will help cover my running-related expenses as a full-time professional runner. Thank you!


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Comments

  1. I had this exact problem over 10 years ago. I had developed a ganglion cyst that was compressing the peroneal nerve, which in effect weakened the popliteus and the rest of the muscles down my calf. I had surgery in January 2002 and it wasn’t until the following January 2003 before I could run on it again. It took so long to rehab, restrenghten and rebalance these muscles!

  2. Thank you!

  3. Thanks!

    Do you have pictures or movies that show how you do the stretching?

    • runcamille says:

      Hi Seb! I haven’t tried to look around, but maybe there’s something on Youtube?? You have to try it for yourself, anchoring an elastic band around your foot and tied around the top of your knee, legs dangling off a table, and then invert your foot inwards until you feel it stretching. I did it until I felt the stretch in the popliteus. Hopefully this works for you and you can figure it out!

      • Thanks, I’ll do it! I also put KTape, I hope that it will be gone soon, I have Boston Marathon in 3 weeks!

        • runcamille says:

          Ahhh, ok! If you play around with the exercise until you feel a stretch in the popliteus (if it is the popliteus), that’s all it takes! Good luck getting healthy and ready for Boston!

      • Thank you for your post Camille! My son plays soccer and strained his popliteus muscle. I wanted to have him do your stretch, but I am having a hard time visualizing the activity you suggested.
        “anchoring an elastic band around your foot and tied around the top of your knee, legs dangling off a table, ” Does mean you have a elastic band that runs from the bottom of your foot, up long your lower leg, around the top of your knee, back down the other side of your lower leg and back under your foot?

        “and then invert your foot inwards until you feel it stretching” Say we are talking about the left foot, are you rotating your foot at the ankle in a clockwise direction? Or are you somehow bending/ rotating your knee to bring your foot in?

        Sorry for the question, but I feel your solution is the best I’ve come across, I just can’t seem to get the visualization right.

        Thank you!

        • runcamille says:

          Hi Wade! Sorry to hear about your sons injury! You take a theraband, wrap it around the foot, bring both ends up, and tie it at the top of the knee– like a big rubber band going from the foot to the knee. Then, you INVERT the foot, meaning you move the foot inwards. I found a youtube video that shows this action (both inversion and eversion): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaFJtarTRGM

          I basically moved the foot inwards, in such a way, that I felt it “stressing/stretching” the popliteus– I suggest doing whatever you gotta do with the foot to feel it at the knee. I got immediately relief from this, once I got the movement ‘just right’ so I felt it in the knee. It was remarkable, since I’d been hurting for 2 months! I hope this further description helps you! :)

          • Thank you!!! Also thank you for your quick response.
            This helps a lot. I guess I am still surprised that the movement in the foot affects that muscle behind the knee. Hopefully my son will find the right movement to stretch it.

            Will let you know how it goes.
            Thanks again and have a great weekend!

          • runcamille says:

            Yeah, I know, isn’t that amazing?! Of course, muscles in the calf attach in the feet (and affect their movement). From reading the article, a ‘shortening’/strain of the popliteus leads to greater pronation of the foot. Everything kinetically works together. This exercise ‘hits the spot’. Hope it works for him! For what it’s worth, another elite marathoner friend did this exercise last winter for his knee, and it worked!

  4. I have foot paralysis. Can the gentle massaging mentioned be enough? I’m not sure I have enough movement to do this exercise. Thanks.

    • runcamille says:

      Hi Chris! It sounds like you need to go to a doctor to figure out why you have foot paralysis. That sounds like a serious matter, probably some sort of nerve impingement.

      • Hi Camille. Thanks. I know about the paralysis. That’s from an old L5 injury. My issue is I have pain behind the knee mostly when I’m climbing stairs or if I do a squat, which I’m not doing now that I have the pain. Thanks

        • runcamille says:

          Ahhh ok! The paralysis is unrelated…. maybe? Have you been to a chiropractor? I recommend going to one who does both ART and acupuncture. They would know whether your knee injury is related to your back or if it’s an isolated muscle injury (and treat it appropriately).

  5. Thanks for the great article! I enjoy reading it.

  6. Pain behind the knees really isn’t fun. Manually applied trigger point therapy and ultrasound is a solution those with pain should definitely use.

  7. I am sorry, I don’t understand how to tie the elastic band. So after wrapping the foot, you lift both ends up, one on each side of the foot and then take them straight up (no crossing) and simply tie them above knee whilst leg is dangling? Thank you!

  8. I’m guessing if I strained or slightly pulled this muscle then rehabbing would be along the same lines of the band work? And is physical activity on a strained popliteus muscle hindering progress to getting better?

    Thanks

    • runcamille says:

      Hi Jimmy, yes, try what’s recommended in the article. The work with the band is what worked for me. It’s up to you on whether any physical activity makes it feel worse or better. I didn’t have to take any time off from running– got relief from the band exercise and continued running.

  9. Karl Bedingfield says:

    Hi there,
    I too currently have pain behind my knee that is constant. As soon as I get out of bed my back of knee aches and when I go downstairs the pain is more pronounced.

    I wondered if a hamstring injury could cause this because on the lateral side hamstring just above the knee, I note is very sore. Could the hamstring cause a pull through the kinetic chain?

    Also, would you think easy stationary bike riding would be OK for cardio when you cannot run?

    Thank you for your time.

    • runcamille says:

      Hi Karl, sorry for the delayed reply– I’ve gotten a lot of messages lately and need to catch up! The hamstrings can definitely be responsible. I recommend seeing a massage therapist or a chiropractor who does ~ART and can palpable to see if you have any scar tissue in your hamstrings/elsewhere. Also, there’s a new self-massage tool called the Roll Recovery. It’s GREAT for working the hamstrings/quads– much better/deeper than foam rolling and The Stick.

      As far as cross training, it’s up to you and what you best tolerate– if you’re OK with cycling or stationary bike, go for it! I personally like walking.

  10. Hi Camille,

    I am trying to look for the correct name of the soft area directly behind the knee below the harmstring and above the calf muscle, but cant find it so far. I have recently started participating in Marathons and now slowly want to increase the distance but I have an injury in the area that i described above which i thought had gone away as i started to ignore it for the last few months, but which flared up yesterday as i attended this marathon in KL. I believe I got this injury when i used to drive my car to-and-fro home-office in India traffic. Note that we have manual cars in India with the accelerator below the right leg. Is there anything i can do to heal this as there is another marathon coming up and i want to increase the distance that i participate in.

    Thanks
    Gaurav

  11. Very helpful. I have a leg length discrepancy which causes my popiliteus muscle to be over toned and tendonitis builds up even after a 3mile run. This is very helpful. Thank you!

  12. calem romasco says:

    Thank you for this insightful, helpful bit of information. I am not a runner yet but have been realizing that what i am experiencing wont just “go away”, I will be trying this out, and fingers crossed, will post again with the good news.

  13. explanation is good but treatment is stupid!

    • runcamille says:

      Why do you say the treatment is stupid, when it worked for me and others who’ve messaged me? This is my most popular post, so it must be helping a lot of people.

  14. Peter Palethorpe says:

    Hello Camille
    I got this pain behind the knee probably triggered by too much wheelbarrow work around the home. I am 71 but have been a fairly seriou runner since I was 18. The injury stopped me from doing my 5 days per week 40 min run. My doctor said it may take several months to heal but after 3 weeks of no exercise I returned to the gym and did a 36 min session on the cross trainer. I was very careful initially but as I warmed up the pain disappeared and I was able to work out at > 90% heart for the last 6 minutes. I felt terrific afterwards and now 2 weeks later the pain has gone! This training activity must have assisted knee muscle recovery?
    Peter

  15. Its a wonderful technique superb results with my players

  16. Were any of you able to run long distances with this injury? Yesterday, I must’ve injured this muscle during a short taper run. Unfortunately, I’m supposed to run a half tomorrow, but I’m nervous the pain will be too severe.

  17. Thank you so much for this article, 5 months after back surgery l5 I started having this pain behind the knee, I am trying your suggestion now, I really appreciate. How many repetitions would be good? How many times a day? Dee

    Hi

  18. When i had been at soccer practice i hit my pther knee to the back of my right knee and it hurt for the rest of the day but it doesnt hurt now. Whenever i extend my leg thier is a sort of pop in the back of my knee i dont know if this could be it. I have been able to full on run because it doesnt hurt. Somebody help me out this happened about two weeks ago.

  19. Hi Camille,

    My mother is sufferring from pain at back side of knee. I dont know exactly whether it is popliteus muscle or not. She is 48 years old and house wife. She is not athlet in the past also. Can she try this activity?

    Thanks in advance.

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